While sushi-ya venues are dime and a dozen in Singapore, the dearth of authentic kaiseki eateries goes a long way to show the city’s lack of appreciation for this multi-course style Japanese cuisine built around the changing of seasons.
Enter Kappo Shunsui by Tokyo-born chef Tomo Watanabe, a 19-seat (11 seats by the counter and 8 regular seats) kappo-style kaiseki eatery tucked on the fourth floor of Cuppage Plaza.
Watanabe cut his teeth with chef Yasuo Kida, an alum of two- Michelin-starred Gion Sasaki in Kyoto, at An, Roppongi, in 2008 before he went on to open Shunsui in Minami Azabu. The restaurant earned itself a Bib Gourmand listing on Michelin Tokyo guide three years in a row from 2015 before Watanabe decided to move lock-stock-and-barrel (complete with his collection of ceramics, glassware and serving vessels) to Singapore this year.
Admittedly, Watanabe’s venue of choice amongst girlie bars and karaoke lounges on the fourth floor of the seedy Cuppage Plaza will raise a few eyebrows. But once you step through the biometric scanner-operated gold-hued door, the angst of being mobbed by tipsy drinkers morphs into one of curiosity, even anticipation, as a kimono-clad server walks you to the black-swathed dining room where Watanabe presides over the counter with the flair of a J-pop prince.
“Shun” refers to seasons and at Kappo Shunsui, Watanabe endeavours to envelop his diners in dishes that distil the best of the Japanese seasons, be it through a grilled dish, or one that’s steamed, simmered, fried or one that’s uncooked. Like the kaiseki masters of Kyoto, Watanabe understands that a well-made dashi is crucial to elevating the flavours of the pristine produce at hand and, without fail, each cooked course arrives gently suffused with the umami of a katsuobushi and/or kombu preparation.
Bear in mind that although an a la carte supper menu is available from 9pm daily till late (1am on all days, 2am on Fridays and Saturdays), the omakase menu is the recommended route to savour Watanabe’s prized delicacies. Watanabe’s ten-course omakase menu, priced at S$299++, is available at a special price of S$199++ till 15th June and come 16th June, the price will revert to the S$299++ price tag. A shorter eight-course omakase menu (S$199+) will also be introduced on 16th June.
It must be said that Shunsui’s kaiseki does not start with a “hassun”, the ritualistic opening appetiser consisting of several artistically styled small dishes served on a wooden tray. That said, you are not missing out, because Watanabe’s appetiser, in my opinion, does a better job of piquing the appetite: shreds of Hokkaido hairy crab with tongues of Hokkaido uni flanked by fruit tomato, boiled broad beans, pickled onions and a blob of tosazu (jelly made from an infusion of katsuobushi, kombu, soya sauce and Japanese rice vinegar). If this beautiful medley of flavours does nothing to open your appetite, I don’t see what will.
Not many kaiseki eateries serve dumplings but the ones that do inadvertently teleport us to Kikunoi Kyoto momentarily to recapture the romance of Yoshihiro Murata’s sea eel-stuffed tofu dumpling in a clear umami broth. Here, Watanabe crafts the dumpling with fish meat and stuffs it with the flesh of hard clams (hamaguri). It arrives with strips of butterbur, mountain asparagus and leaves of kinome in a clean-tasting dashi bath with a briny shellfish aroma.
It is not unusual for a kaiseki meal to feature several in-season fish dishes but, the appearance of kue fish (longtooth grouper or kelp grouper), a prized winter fish, on the menu in late Spring may come as a surprise to some. As we later discover, the kue served by Watanabe is from a 25kg big fish that is available all year round. Watanabe fillets the white fish and serves it in a sizzling hotpot teeming with Japanese leek, lettuce and mizuna. This time, the broth features nothing more than kombu and is completely unseasoned and unsalted, all the better to savour the pristine white fish alongside a ponzu dip. It’s Japanese minimalism at its best.
At times, which is not often at all, Watanabe flirts with western influences. Instead of serving his steamed egg custard (chawanmushi) dish straight off, he tops it with sea urchin and Italian truffled caviar. Lest you think it’s habitual, it’s not (thankfully).
The concluding dish of claypot rice is proof that Watanabe delivers tradition where it is most needed. In late Spring, he prepares a dashi-cooked claypot rice topped with grilled wild caught red snapper and serves it alongside red miso and shijimi clam soup.
There are times when the menu panders to the demands of the local diners. A sushi course of admittedly well-crafted sushi of gizzard shad and wild-caught red snapper on warm, hand-pressed rice is one. And instead of serving up grilled fish, which is the case more often than not in a kaiseki meal, A4 Omi wagyu sirloin makes an appearance alongside dashi-cooked Saga onion puree and a spear of Hokkaido white asparagus. Having said that, the wagyu course is spot-on and the onion puree is a thing of beauty. Ditto the sushi.
Watanabe is also a qualified sake sommelier (kikisake-shi) and should you opt for the six-course sake pairing option (S$55++ and S$85++, the latter being more premium sakes), you will see for yourself his attention to the sake experience and that includes how your rice wine is warmed in a gorgeous hand-made copper pot. That’s not to mention his collection of sake, some extremely rare.
Eventhough Kappo Shunsui’s kaiseki is not Kyoto-perfect, with several late Spring ingredients like sweet ayu and hamo (conger eel) missing an appearance, this private kaiseki diner is going down in our book as one of the most authentic we’ve seen in Singapore. Needless to say, it’s highly recommended.
5 Koek Road, 04-02 Cuppage Plaza, Singapore 228 796 | +65-6732 0192.